At a congressional hearing last week on the District’s budget and fiscal outlook, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) made a startling statement— he’d be willing to consider granting the city additional autonomy in how it spends its locally raised funds.
Like many other advances for D.C. voting rights and self-determination before it, Issa’s proposal goes only halfway toward what many residents and activists have been demanding for decades. But, at this point, is half of what most District residents want the best they’re going to get? It seems like it.
Ever since the District was granted limited home rule in 1973, it has had to submit its annual budget to Congress for approval. The arrangement has been irksome for a number of reasons. It has made local budgeting and planning increasingly inefficient, subjected the city’s budget to the unpredictable whims of the congressional appropriations process and given lawmakers opportunities to insert noxious policy directives into local spending plans.
The District’s lack of budget freedom has been particularly evident this year. Not only did the city run the risk of being lumped in with a federal shutdown (halting such local services as trash pickup and vehicle registration), but congressional Republicans again inserted a prohibition on the use of local funds for abortions and threatened local needle-exchange programs.
The relentless attacks on local priorities were a motivating factor in the April 11 demonstration in which 41 District residents were arrested, including Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown. Since then, 20 more people have been arrested while demanding that Congress cut the District’s budget loose.
At Thursday’s hearing, Gray, Brown, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and former Control Board chairman Alice Rivlin took turns advocating for greater budget autonomy, citing local prerogatives and the difficulty in adjusting the District’s budget to the congressional fiscal year. (The D.C. Council passes its budget in June, but Congress doesn’t get to it until September — if it approves it at all.)
Gandhi, hardly a voting rights firebrand, made the most compelling case, succinctly outlining how congressional oversight of the D.C. budget hurt the city. “[T]he more time that elapses between the formulation of a budget and its execution, the more likely the operating assumptions underlying that budget will not hold true,” he said.
If it were up to him, Gandhi argued, only federal funds uniquely earmarked for the District would be subject to congressional approval. He pointed out that of the $8.9 billion 2012 D.C. budget, only $174.3 million — roughly 2 percent — would qualify.
There is where Issa’s plan comes in. The chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee proposed splitting the budget into two parts — one dealing exclusively with local funds, the second with about $2.5 billion in federal funds for everything from school lunches to Medicaid reimbursements. The first part would be voted on much closer to the date the D.C. Council passes it. The second would follow the congressional appropriations schedule.
Issa’s plan would certainly be a step forward, but much like every move toward D.C. self-determination, it’s an imperfect compromise. Most notably, it wouldn’t stop Congress from telling the District how it can or can’t spend its money. In fact, it would give Congress an additional chance to attach social riders to the city’s budget.
To some, it’s simply not a good deal. Much like the bill that would have given the District a full voting seat in the House at the expense of its ability to write its own gun laws, Issa’s plan would again force city residents to trade away some of their rights. That’s been an underlying trend in the District’s history — the 1973 Home Rule Act did give us an elected mayor and council, but kept ultimate authority over city affairs with Congress.
But at this point, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. Considering the frustrating lack of progress on D.C. voting rights and self-determination in recent years, Issa’s plan may well be as positive a development as we could hope for. No, it won’t stop Congress from imposing its ideological whims on the District. But it will at least allow our city to better plan, manage and spend the billions it raises locally.
Of course, Issa still has to iron out his proposal, and it remains to be seen if enough congressional Republicans would go along. But that the idea was even floated is positive news, and could well serve as a tool to slowly extract more concessions from a Congress that interferes with the District just because it can.